The title “Grandmaster” could just as easily refer to Wong Kar Wai as any of the kung fu masters in his latest film. He is a genius. And here the director’s talent for gorgeous compositions and unspoken emotion are on full display… as are his penchant for prolonged meandering and self-indulgent beauty.
The Grandmaster begins with a rainy fight scene that, while not adhering to the physical world, thankfully doesn’t include characters delivering ten kicks in a single leap. Combat borrows from the Wuxia tradition but isn’t as egregiously impossible as most other recent crossover exports. Most of the fights are filmed in such extreme close-up and slow motion that it’s hard to see and appreciate the choreography. Grandmaster’s combat wants to be subtle, full-frame glancing blows and sliding feet, but still shoves an opponent six feet through the air and crushes a rickshaw in one kick.
Similar inconsistency plagues the narrative in fluctuating between over and under-explanation. Nearly every line of cryptic wisdom is followed by an obvious explanation. Texts appear to inform the audience of certain events before visualizing them on screen. In the opening minutes, a text explains how the Japanese invasion united the two sides of regional kung fu schools. The next hour then shows every detail of how Ip Man (legendary teacher to Bruce Lee) prepared to meet the northern master. When the film finally catches up to the text, the war lasts about three minutes before another text explains how the city and Man’s family were devastated. A solid half of the film is characters walking through forests or snow in jittery slow motion (like a low-res YouTube video) while the biggest events are announced as words on screen.
As with all of Wong Kar Wai’s work, The Grandmaster is a beautiful film, fuzzy slow-motion edges aside. Period details, lighting, brief touches and glances are highly evocative of a larger, better story underneath the central narrative. While this constant hinting makes the underlying themes glaringly obvious (like simultaneously winking, nudging, pointing and lipping “Hey, look over there!”) it doesn’t take away from the film’s crippling beauty. The overall effect is like that of an 800-page novel in rich, luxurious, numbing prose. The surface is gorgeous and expansive, but the substance beneath can be summarized in a single paragraph. [subscribe2]